“In the war on terrorism, the fields and pastures of America’s farmland might seem at first to have nothing in common with the towers of the World Trade Center or busy seaports. In fact, however, they are merely different manifestations of the same high-priority target, the American economy.”
That's Senator Susan Collins (R-ME) warning us about "agroterrorism", a specter that she and others in Washington say is stalking rural America. Here in the Great Plains, we're all being exhorted to keep a round-the-clock lookout for agroterrorists lurking around farms or feedlots.
Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas, Republican chair of the Intelligence Committee, has been hyping agroterrorism since 1999. But it took the 9/11 attacks to get some action. Roberts recently told the Wichita Eagle, "At least now, when I talk about agroterrorism, people don't tell me to talk about something else."
Keeping in mind that terrorists never seem inclined to take targeting suggestions from US politicians, we know these days to treat any use the word "terrorism" with deep skepticism. But when a prefix is attached, we should be especially wary.
Given the lack of standardization (the prefix of "bioterrorism" denoting the means of attack, of "narcoterrorism" the means of finance, of "ecoterrorism" the beneficiary, and of "agroterrorism" the target) it's clear that "terrorism" is simply a device to draw attention to whatever is in the prefix, and maybe scare up some funding.
The Current Research Information System (CRIS) is a database describing all agricultural research projects funded by the US Department of Agriculture through grants, contracts, or its own agencies. A search of CRIS for variants of the terms "agroterrorism" or "terrorism" turns up 18 agriculture-related projects initiated during the four-year period 1998-2001. For the following four years, 2001-05, there are precisely 100 projects that mention terrorism or related terms.
Titles of the projects range from "Semiochemical Management Tactics for Filth Flies in Animal Production" to "A Partnership for Pharmaceutical and Economic Development of Wild Lebanese Plants". Some of the projects are actually aimed at thwarting or investigating agroterrorism. Many others simply mention it as one among many applications of research that the scientists would likely be doing anyway for other reasons. Either way, agroterrorism is 'in' in Washington.
This past summer, the federally funded National Agricultural Biosecurity Center at Kansas State University prepared a report for the US Department of Justice entitled "Defining Law Enforcement's Role in Protecting American Agriculture Against Agroterrorism" (their italics). It defined "four categories of potential terrorists", only one of them identifiably foreign, who might spread foot-and-mouth or other diseases among cattle, causing billions in economic losses but no human illness:
1. International terrorists
2. Economic opportunists
3. Domestic terrorists (either a Timothy McVeigh type or a "disgruntled employee")
4. Militant animal rights activists (The report notes that "militant elements, such as the Animal Liberation Front, could view an attack on the animal food industry as a positive event.")
It seems that agroterrorism is just a new name for old-fashioned sabotage.
Out here in the red states, we often worry that the average American has little knowledge or interest in agriculture. But we need to change our attitude, according to the "Agro-Guard" program sponsored by the NABC and Kansas Bureau of Investigation. Its brochure (pdf) urges citizens to report to the authorities anyone showing an interest in agricultural matters who has "no logical reason or purpose" for such interest. It exhorts rural Americans to "report any activity around facilities that YOU deem suspicious or out-of-place."
So now I suppose we do things this way:
New Jersey traveler: "Say, do you guys give tours?"
Slaughterhouse manager: "May I see your papers, please? ... Hey, Merle, call the sheriff!"
In Kansas City each spring, The FBI and federal Joint Terrorism Task Force convene an International Symposium on Agroterrorism. Relying on some of the concepts discussed at the 2005 Symposium and other oft-mentioned scenarios, I composed the following list of six potential threats.
Then I realized that much of the damage agroterrorism is expected to cause is already a reality:
Agroterrorists might sicken or kill thousands of Americans by contaminating the food supply with biological agents.
Thousands of Americans? The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that "76 million Americans get sick, more than 300,000 are hospitalized, and 5,000 people die from foodborne illnesses each year."
The flow of food contaminated with nasty microorganisms coming from of an ever-more-industrialized countryside is heavy and constant. Of the 10 organisms listed by the US Public Health Service as the most serious threats, 7 are carried by meat and dairy products.
In promoting the agroterrorism threat, Senator Collins conjured up a bucolic image: "the fields and pastures of America's farmland." But the overcrowded, filthy conditions of gigantic feedlots and animal-confinement facilities that produce most of our meat are well-known, as are the opportunities for contamination in high-throughput, lightly inspected slaughterhouses.
Cattle consuming a grain-based diet in feedlots (and that's the vast majority of beef cattle in this country) are more likely to have the deadly bacterium E. coli 0157:H7 in their feces than are grass- or hay-fed cattle, and meat is frequently contaminated with feces as it leaves the slaughterhouse.
What if someone were to poison the rural water supply?
Someone's already doing it. A 1998 CDC report showed that 15% of domestic wells in Illinois, 21% in Iowa, and 24% in Kansas were contaminated with nitrates above a safe level. Most of the nitrates get into wells by escaping the roots of heavily fertilized crops and leaching into groundwater. Consumption of nitrates is associated with methemoglobenemia ("blue baby syndrome") in infants. Many, but not all, studies have shown links between nitrates and various cancers in adults.
A 2004 report by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment (pdf) surveyed 19,500 miles of rivers and streams in the state. More than half of those miles -- 10,800 -- were "impaired for one or more uses" by pollution. Of more than 180,000 acres of lakes, 75% were similarly polluted. More than 40% of stream mileage and lake acreage was unable to "fully support" aquatic life, and 69% of lake acreage could not fully support domestic water uses.
In the Kansas study, agriculture was by far the biggest cause of damage to surface waters -- exceeding industry, municipal discharge, sewage, urban runoff, mining, and oil drilling combined.
Terrorists might breed bacteria resistant to most or all antibiotics, spreading hard-to-cure diseases among animals and humans.
But they'd be too late. According to a study published this year by CDC scientists, bacterial resistance to multiple antibiotics in human patients comes chiefly from feeding antibiotics to livestock. The bacteria that survive and contaminate the meat of such animals are likely to be resistant.
And, the study showed, resistant bacteria are more likely to cause bloodstream infections requiring hospitalization. A 2004 study found that an outbreak of antibiotic-resistant urinary tract infections of women in California was caused by meat-borne bacteria from antibiotic-treated animals.
In this country, antibiotics are widely fed to livestock even when they aren't sick, because the drugs promote weight gain and profits. That practice has been banned in Europe because it accelerates the development of hard-to-kill bacterial strains.
Vast acreages of crops could be wiped out by inoculation with plant diseases.
Mother Nature is already busy inoculating crops with a massive array of fungi, bacteria, viruses, and insects -- some beneficial and some harmful. Over the past 30 years, Kansas wheat production has been reduced by an average 30 to 40 million bushels per year by a dozen different fungal and viral diseases -- and that doesn't count insects and mites.
The disease organisms are natural, but epidemics are not; they result when vast acreages are sown to one or a few crop species (e.g., corn and soybeans in the Upper Midwest, wheat in the Great Plains), the fields are kept as free as possible of any other flora or fauna, and only a handful of genetically similar crop varieties are grown.
As late as the 1960s, the United States bioweapons program worked on "weaponizing" two crop diseases, wheat stem rust and rice blast, and the Soviets worked on such pathogens for another couple of decades after that, but neither seems to have come up with an effective way to wipe out a nation's crop entirely.
Terrorists might use chemical weapons. Remember, the 9/11 gang showed an interest in flying crop dusters!
Of the 1.2 billion pounds of pesticides (fungicides, insecticides, herbicides, and others) used in the United States, 75% are used in agriculture, and that proportion has been fairly constant over the past 20 years.
The consequences? The following is reproduced from a report by the Natural Resources Defense Council:
Children living in farming areas or whose parents work in agriculture are exposed to pesticides to a greater degree, and from more sources than other children.
The outdoor herbicide atrazine was detected inside all the houses of Iowa farm families sampled in a small study during the application season, and in only 4 percent of 362 non-farm homes.
Neurotoxic organophosphate pesticides have been detected on the hands of farm children at levels that could result in exposures above U.S. EPA designated "safe" levels.
Metabolites of organophosphate pesticides used only in agriculture were detectable in the urine of two out of every three children of agricultural workers and in four out of every ten children who simply live in an agricultural region.
On farms, children as young as 10 can work legally, and younger children frequently work illegally or accompany their parents to the fields due to economic necessity and a lack of child care options. These practices can result in acute poisonings and deaths.
By far the most comprehensive epidemiological study of the effects of ag chemicals is the National Institutes of Health / EPA Agricultural Health Study, which has been running since 1993. Scientists have been monitoring the health of private and commercial pesticide applicators and spouses -- almost 90,000 of them so far. The still-unfinished research is suggesting that some ag chemicals present risks to humans. "Outcomes of concern" include cancer, neurologic diseases, reproductive problems, and nonmalignant respiratory diseases.
Meanwhile, the EPA, at industry's urging, continues to permit dosing of human subjects with pesticides in order to test their effects.
A highly trained agroterrorist might infect crops with a toxin-producing fungus and contaminate our food that way.
No terrorists or training necessary. Vomitoxin, produced by the "scab" fungus Fusarium graminearum, and aflatoxin, produced by Aspergillus flavis, have been inflicting enormous headaches and costs on farmers and the grain industry for years. Vomitoxin makes a wheat or barley crop unusable as human food and drastically reduces or destroys its value as livestock feed. Aflatoxin, found most often in peanuts or corn, is carcinogenic.
In the state North Dakota alone, scab has cost farmers $162 million this year and $1.5 billion since 1993. It caused a disastrous epidemic in the southeastern United States in 2003.
Two factors have converged in recent years to make scab much more severe: (a) farmers concerned about soil erosion have reduced or eliminated tillage in many fields, leaving infected crop residue on the soil surface, and (b) grain agriculture in the US continues to emphasize continuous monocultures or unsustainable rotations such as wheat following corn.
Those who are sounding the agroterrorism alarm acknowledge that the increasing concentration of US agriculture, and its increasingly industrial infrastructure, make it more vulnerable. But those same, homegrown forces are already having consequences that are not easy to distinguish from the results of a hypothetical agroterror attack.
With an agriculture like this, who needs terrorists?
Stan Cox is a plant breeder (perennial crops, resistant to terrorism) and writer in Salina, Kansas. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.